Monday, November 11, 2002

Pool Fool

People who take unimportant things too seriously are such a bore. I recently played pool with someone who was obviously very good at the game. He knew I was useless, he knew he could have beaten me with a blindfold on and one hand tied to his leg. I even said to him - "I won't play you because I'm crap, it'll be a waste of your time." But he insisted. The balls were duly racked and stacked and cues selected. The cues all looked the same to me so I grabbed the nearest one. My adversary however, spent some time inspecting the grain of several, running his hands up and down the shafts in a kind of wish-filled masturbatory motion, weighing the balance, placing the butt end to his eye as if taking aim from a rifle to check the straightness, picking and scratching at the tip like a fussy monkey grooming its mate, before finally deciding on one.

In what turned out to be the only concession to my lack of skill at this game I was awarded the (dubious) advantage of breaking off. I did my usual - whacked the white ball straight into a pocket making plenty of "Look how bad I am at this game isn't it a hoot" type facial expressions and "told you I was rubbish" references to everyone watching, most of whom (conspiratorially) laughed along with me. The "expert" player however deduced none of this mirth, and, making no allowances for my lack of ability, proceeded to virtually clear up with a series shots I'd only ever seen before on the telly. A sports term's thesaurus of top spins, screw backs, check sides, plants, ball bending and cannons. And all executed with the sternest expression imaginable, eyes narrowed, facial muscles twitching, punctilious chalking whilst strategies and alternatives were weighed up and options chosen. Once getting to the table I did a couple more daft shots and while his back was turned hit one twice ( I was getting fed up by this stage) potting a rare ball. Everyone thought it was funny. Except him. He took his free shots after angrily challenging me about my "cheating" and ended the game in a flurry of pocket rattling, ball fizzing shots. Winning was so important to him. There was no place for humour, even though I was no challenge to him. " Another game?" he asked, "No thanks", I replied, and "life's too short" I thought. And it is.


Wednesday, November 06, 2002

I never really thought of the word obconic as being a useful adjective. Or that it could be used as an ironical descriptive. Perhaps I'm the last to know that as a word it is synonymous with "pearshaped" which could describe how some of my posts turn out - set out with the best intentions, before going "pearshaped."

I don't suppose this piece of information will helpfully enrich anyone's vocabulary or enliven their ability to be elegantly varied. Anymore so than the knowledge that "rostrate" describes something which is boat shaped ( what else is boat shaped other than a boat?) "scaphoid" is bow shaped ( rather than some ghastly disease hybrid involving scabies and typhoid); falcate could describe (perhaps only from the pen of the late Anthony Burgess) something which is sickle shaped - I shouldn't think everyone knows what sickle shaped means these days, hammer and sickle flags no longer having any real relevance. And "ligulate" which could stand in for, if one wishes to be purposefully obscure, tongue shaped. Ligulate and groove, hmmm doesn't seem to have quite the same ring to it - which could bring me to an alternative bell shaped word. But the link will have to do the work for that one.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Conkers. Kids don't play it anymore. To many hi-tech distractions I suppose. I wonder if they know what they're missing.

As schoolboys we knew every Horse Chestnut tree within a radius of ten miles from where we lived. We were never given points at school for arboreal recognition, but then again we didn't want them.. What we wanted was conkers. Loads if them.

Our version of combat, our need to satisfy our insatiable appetite for trials of strength and ingenuity didn't lie with computer generated images endowed with unbelievable fighting skills and out of this world weaponry, ours lay ( at this time of year at least) with the humble conker.

Gaggles of us would stand looking like refugees an untidy gaggle of bodies, bikes and dufflebags, as if in veneration beneath a chosen Horse Chestnut, armed with stones, lumps of mud, and sticks. These would be hurled into the branches in the hope of scoring a fall. If someone hit a spot laden with the desired objects, great tumblings of spiky green ball shaped objects would rattle-thud down to the ground. Heads had to be protected with hands and arms, but eyes would never leave the spots where they fell. There were no proprietorial rights of ownership dependent on the successful thrower, once down, they were anyones. It was an unspoken team effort. Ownership rights were determined once they were squirreled into bags or thrust into pockets or into jumpers.

Once they had been transported home the cases would be broken to reveal the sublime beautifully grained mahogany nuts which would be used for combat. They would be primed with a hole through the centre by means of a skewer (many a hand would be partial skewered at the same time) and a piece of string would be threaded through it and knotted at the conker end to allow it to be suspended where it would hang with its own weight providing the required tautness.

The game was simple. Two combatants, two conkers. Each conker in turn would be swung by its owner in the hope of making damaging contact to the other. This would continue until one or the other was cracked and by degrees shattered. The winning conker the conqueror (conkerer?) and its owner would then be hailed as champions and the conker bestowed a number relevant to the number of successes it had racked up using the prefix Billy as in Billy 1 Billy 2 etc.

Everyone would be involved, no one showed a lack of interest. Rules were drawn up to prevent cheats and to ensure fair play A sneaks charter of ruses was identified, a sort of conkery Queensbury Rules remembered by heart. Conkers would be banned from combat should they fail the olfactory test: a smell of vinegar (a sort of anabolic steroid for conkers - a nightly soak was said to harden the shell), or the aroma of the oven ( a baker was not a fair match against a natural.) Last years models - easily identified by their darkened hue and gnarled complexions; all were quickly banned from competition.

Hold conker between index and middle finger, release and flick downwards. No swinging - but allowable providing you understood the risks, a tangle of strings (tangle six) meant that the recipient had six free hits. Smack/Whack - Smack/Whack. Cracking conkers, cracking knuckles. Cracking fun.

Saturday, November 02, 2002

I first posted this back in June. Now that The Osbournes is about to be given its long awaited terrestrial screening I'm going to be ever so slightly egotistical and republish this piece should anyone have missed it first time round! Well there aren't any rules that state I can't, are there?

I finally got round to watching an episode of "The Osbournes" last night - Episode 3 I think it was. A strange experience but like most distasteful ideas that find their way on to our television screens, strangely watchable. The fly on the wall format still has the sucker power of its namesake's feet, the natural strength of its hair-thin legs, and the all-seeing appraising eye of the edgy voyeur.

Whoever identified the insatiable curiosity we humans have in the everyday/workaday minutiae of each other's lives and the congenital need for this fulfillment once we're exposed to an unfolding sequence of mundane events, must have found the television equivalent of the Holy Grail. They must also have been blessed with the psychological perception of a Freud combined with the kind of entrepreneurial acumen that could turn a cockney barrow-boy into a millionaire.

Each time reality-based TV programmes show signs of losing pre-eminence to a newer obsession it returns stronger than ever. Pretenders to the popularity crown are destined to always be just that. The clever (the host as star) chat shows, the quiz-show with the rude presenter, the "on location celebrity." Even the confrontational confessionals - choreographed itineraries of pulled-punch ups, crocodile tears, and slaughtered grammar, takes a lesser billing in the public preference to the " here we are living our lives, fancy a peek?" television programme.

Years before the "Airports", the "Driving Schools", the "Hotels." Long before the "Survivors" and "Big Brothers." Ages before these programmes spawned all those low grade improbable celebrities such as Airport's camp Jeremy Spake, Driving school's ghastly Maureen, the callous Eileen from Hotel and the uncouth Helen from BB; the ground-breaking: "The Family," which created a celebrity out of no-one except the format, was filmed back in the 1970's.

Over a number of months this working class family's life - which I believe was all but destroyed, such as it could be made worse, in the process - was filmed in intimate and prurient detail. The "life" as depicted, resembled little more than a peek at a group of people living more or less on top of each other, in a Council house in Reading. They were lives of penurious desperation. More no-s than a Japanese theatre group characterized the individuals: no work, no money, no brains, no morals, a kitchen-sink drama of rows, petulance, dirty talk and idleness. The scenery consisted of a complement of cheap beer, smoldering ciggies, tatty sofas, chirping budgies, and outside lavs. Viewers were tacitly invited to condemn the poverty- stricken, morality-free horror of this "typical" working class family unit. It made grim viewing. But it was also compulsive viewing. A factualised hybrid of "Cathy Come Home"'Til Death Do Us Part" and "The Royale Family." And as real as the editors allowed it to be.

"The Osbournes" - particularly when it hits mainstream television will also be compulsive viewing. "The Osbournes" is essentially the Wilkins family but with the liberating resource of money. And a famous though shambolic, constantly befuddled, hard-life-ravaged, foul-mouthed but still somehow charming, male lead.

Old rocker Ozzy Osbourne with the glamour of his youthful excess long behind him - the dark poetry of his Black Sabbath days fighting for the tenancy rights of his mouth with the heads of doves and bats. Provocatively strutting the worlds gig stages part Jagger, part devil - the real deal to Alice Cooper's Prince of Darkness manque. Now reduced to an oddball, bumbling figure of fun, fifty something (he can never remember), raddled, shaky, and nearly deaf. "So would you be if you'd shared a stage for thirty years with millions of decibels," he mumbles brummily to his fun-poking daughter, his enunciation the proof that half a lifetime of drunkenness induces a second half permanent hangover.

Just as with the Wilkin's we marvel at the very awfulness of it all. We hate most of the cast of the star-struck wannabes, camera-mugging their way to tabloid-style fame, real or imagined - the trainee vets, soldiers, cruise ship entertainers, and God help us traffic wardens. And we hate all the shrill Big Brother contestants and crude exhibitionist "Uncovered" wastrels. But our appetite to drop in and out of other people's otherwise private affairs is still strong. A glimpse at the living creation of other people's lives enables us to form opinions as to what our lives are all about. To recognize similarities or dissimilarities helps in the effort to try to understand something more about the meanings of our own lives. This is probably why we have the desire for a casual squinny at something we should not really see, or to eavesdrop on something we should not really hear.

Who of us would not rather penetrate those roped off areas of the stately homes open to the public, and break off from the organised route and into the areas marked "Private." And who amongst us can say that they haven't felt a frisson of excitement when stumbling into a private conversation on a telephone line and felt compelled to continue holding the receiver to your ear long after the error has been realised.

Whatever it is that drives me to watching these TV programmes, whatever it is that makes me so curious, it's a real force to reckon with and I shall be watching (or taping) "The Osbournes" every Sunday night from now on.

Friday, November 01, 2002

At any time in the last few months anyone with any awareness of my uneven working patterns combined with a knowledge of my peripatetic life would have concluded that the likelihood of my being in the house at six thirty on the evening of 31 October would have been remote to say the least.

Six thirty, I should explain seems to be the most active time period around here for youngsters celebrating Hallowe'en, or as it's become, that great annual fun and mischief-fuelled front door extortion racket. Clusters of fresh-faced, theatrically uglified, pocket-sized ghouls ghosties and goblins gathered to celebrate in the only way they know how. Seemingly at six thirty precisely, troupes of whipped up, highly excited children proceeded to hoot and whoop their intrusive way to every front door, entrance and window in the neighborhood: A granny's-chest ransacking of jaggy black gowns, remodeled hats and garish sequins.

This year, forces of randomness, happenstance, coincidence and bad luck conspired and compelled me to be in the house at that precise time. And I was going to have to endure.

Looking like stunted escapees from a cheesy fairground ghost-train or house of horrors, the little tyrants with their luminous skeleton and boggle eyed masks (from out of which peeped angelic though greedy eyes) shrieked, cackled, zombied and annoyed their way into the peaceful lives of everyone else. And then demanded money from anyone foolish enough to open an impatiently knocked door in an effort to show a good-natured, if pained interest. The justification behind the payment for their fun, the fairly recently imported ( 1982 - the film ET has much to answer for) morally dubious convention of "trick or treat." The rules are simple, you either pay or you suffer the consequences. The price of not paying results in a messy hit involving a modern witches brew of eggs, shaving foam and crazy string.

Funny? Well it seems there can be no sympathy for a skinflint. Likely victims either hand out the dosh or run the risk of the tightwad and suffer a rude and unwelcome ' trick.' I paid. With handfuls of pocket wrecking and these days virtually useless coppers placed aside for the purpose. A strategy that seemed to work - the satisfying tinkle-rattle of fistfuls of coinage crashing together in jars, hats and other receptacles was sufficient to keep these mini, demonised entrepreneurs on side. But I still wish I'd been out.